Higher Education's Train to Nowhere

There is an alarming disconnect in contemporary higher education. As I have been saying in this space for more than two years, the university-as-corporation threatens to undermine the foundation of a world-class system of education and diminish the quality of our future social life.

One of the ramifications of university corporatization has been an increasing disregard for the intellectual dimensions of the professorial life. In the name of technological efficiency an increasingly bloated cadre of university technocrats flood our in-boxes with mindless minutia. These institutional requirements -- assessment outcomes, mission statements, five year plans, and so on -- have become so burdensome that there is precious little time for intellectual pursuit. During the academic year it is difficult to find the "leisure" to read current research reports, prepare grant proposals, design new courses, refine lectures, or write an article or a book? In the current environment of institutional reviews and performance assessments, who has time to think?

From my vantage of being in the university teaching trenches for more than 30 years, I have witnessed the slow but inexorable erosion of respect for professors. The once-valued life of the mind is increasingly seen as flighty, anachronistic or, worse yet, counterproductive. There is a widespread belief -- even among university technocrats -- that professors get paid a great deal for very little work. A comment on my recent blog, "Back to the Struggle Against Ignorance," is a case in point: "Are there any Professors left in this country who actually teach and do research, or are they all on the public dole so they can write blogs for the Huffington Post?"

If you think my suggestion is a tad overblown, consider how the administrative technocrats at the University of Oregon (UO) are trying to limit the "privacy" of a world-class faculty. As part of the negotiation of a first contact between a new faculty union and the UO administration, UO expressed its desire to monitor the emails of faculty members. Here is the language of a UO counter-proposal dated 8/29/13, "Article 49: Acceptable Use of University Information Assets." It was published on the University of Oregon website.

Bargaining unit faculty members have no expectation of privacy in emails, files, documents, or other information created or stored on university information assets. The university may monitor the use of, and review documents and other information stored on university information assets. Emails sent on a bargaining unit faculty member's non-university email account and information created or stored on non-university computer systems belong to the bargaining unit member except to the extent that they address work-related subjects.

The aim of this policy may well be to "reign in" faculty opinion -- even those expressed in private email accounts if they concern work-related subjects. Since many, if not most, professors work at home and write a wide variety of messages that are "work-related," the UO administration looks like it wants to cast a wide net of surveillance over faculty communications -- especially, I would suppose, those that are critical of university personnel of policies.

The broader implication of this policy smacks of university corporatization. Looking for incidences of personal abuse, corporations routinely monitor the emails of employees. In the same manner the UO administration wants to ensure faculty "informational asset compliance." The intent of such a proposed policy is insulting, an example of the erosion of institutional respect for university and college professors.

It is equally insulting to see how much money floods into the administrative coffers on our campuses. Consider the administrative bloat at Purdue University that John Hechinger described last year in Bloomberg News. He quoted J. Paul Robinson, president of Purdue's Faculty Senate, as he walked by his university's administrative tower.

"I have no idea what these people do," said Robinson, waving his hand across a row of offices, his voice rising.

The 59-year-old professor of biomedical engineering is leading a faculty revolt against bureaucratic bloat at the public university in Indiana. In the past decade, the number of administrative employees jumped 54 percent, almost eight times the growth of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000 chief diversity officer. It employs 16 deans and 11 vice presidents, among them a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief...

"We're a public university," Robinson said. "We're here to deliver a high-quality education at as low a price as possible. Why is it that we can't find any money for more faculty, but there seems to be an almost unlimited budget for administrators?"

There is administrative bloat at the public university where I teach -- lots of vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, program directors, associate provosts, and associate deans. These administrators, of course, need support staff. The ever-growing cadre of administrators and staff, of course, requires office space. Amid a campus-building boom -- new dormitories, a world-class fitness center, and new parking lots -- there is an ironic shortage of instructional space, which means that students are crowded into old stuffy classrooms. Given the aforementioned expansion of staff, there is also at shortage of office space, which means that new faculty members are often forced to "double up" in substandard spaces. Meanwhile, we are bombarded with administrative pabulum. Do our syllabi conform to the university template? Have we used the correct terms in our mission statements? Have we adhered to a huge assortment of university guidelines? Have we met our student processing goals?

Granted universities are large institutions with extensive budgets and challenging institutional issues. We need administrators to run our institutions of higher education. But universities are not corporations. In a September 8 blog published in the English-language version of Al Jazeera, Santiago Zabala, a philosopher at the University of Barcelona, cut through the technocratic balderdash to focus on the heart of the matter:

For those of us who had the good fortune to be educated by teachers who guided our intellectual interest and social wellbeing regardless of where we were enrolled, we know it's always the faculty that makes the difference, not the institution. If, as Noam Chomsky once pointed out, "our kids are being prepared for passive obedience, not creative, independent lives", it's because we live in a corporate world where most institutions are ranked according to criteria that too often ignore the essence of the discipline in favour of the job market.

Professor Zabala went on to write:

In other words, colleges and universities are actively undermining one of their basic tenets - to educate and equip a citizenry to make society a better place, in great part by challenging unjust and abusive power. When you combine this unreflective and shallow environment with the corporate takeover of the academy, you turn the education process into a means to make more and more profit. A profit mentality driving the educational environment will necessarily ignore building a conscious community that is intentional about learning, and serious about forming citizens who can think critically and question society. To do that, learning environments must be intentionally formed so that students can learn to focus on serious and sustained reflection.

The technocratic elites who run our universities are not likely to seriously consider Professor Zabala's argument -- too pie in the sky, too "counterproductive." Most of them have already boarded a train en route to the innovative, market-savvy and technologically sophisticated future of higher education. What they tend to overlook, however, is that without a strong, creative, well-supported and well-respected faculty, they are riding on a train to nowhere.